Chapter 154: If you give a mouse a cookie
While we were distracted with the stragglers, the first participants crossed the pit and moved on to the far more natural-looking tunnel beyond it.
<What’s the plan?> Kaitlynn sends as we approach the other side of the pit.
Glancing ahead, I make a split-second decision. <Flight mode B!>
<Sure,> she sends, immediately shifting her jet down, so she can slow and land on the smooth stone of a platform. <But I meant more long-term. Like, what doors are we gunning for?>
I sweep down next to her. <One of us takes the crystal door, whoever can get back faster doubles back for a darksteel door.>
Without missing a beat, she pushes off her cloak of Astreum and hops onto my back, the pressure of her thighs clamping down on my waist reassuring. <Sounds good!>
We considered mid-Aether transitions but lacked the space to properly practise those.
Flying like this is less suited for combat, as we’re a much bigger, less-manoeuvrable target, but there’s no avoiding it; Kaitlynn needs time to refill her Qi Pool.
Besides, this mode has its advantages.
Kaitlynn fires two low-power streams of Astreum from her feet, which—combined with my field of Negative Inertial Energy—is more than enough to send us rocketing forward together.
At this level of output, she can still easily recharge, thanks to the conversion cycle and her Power-Up.
We shoot into the tunnel. It slopes up, so only now do I see what’s ahead of us. My eyes widen as I take in the webbing that bars the path ahead. I don’t see any spider-like creatures, but there’s a high-pitched noise which tells me the webbing is full of Vibration Energy anyway.
Up above, a big tube of Boreum penetrates the web, revealing how Dominique chose to pass through. It’s rather convenient that the entrance is still there. Actually, a little too convenient… It seems to be under a lot of pressure from the webbing, and it probably won’t last much longer with all that Vibration Energy.
Did she leave it open on purpose? Well, either way, we’re carving our own path forward. After all, I know exactly how to handle webs like these.
I pull the waterskin off my belt and inhale its contents.
Inside my lungs, I Infuse the Hydrum with Acidic Energy.
Kaitlynn stops the jets coming from her feet, tensing up as we near the webs, but doesn’t say anything.
She knows what’s coming. After all, she’s seen me practise this.
I eject the glowing pink acid through the o-shape formed by my lips at high speed. The Acid burns a little in my windpipe and mouth, as my Tolerance is not capable of perfectly countering the Purpose-filled Toxic Energy, but Regeneration will take care of that, and I don’t mind a little pain.
The narrow flow of Hydrum cuts through the thick webbing as if it were cotton candy, clearing a huge swath up to about halfway through the web.
If only Bruce could see me now. Who needs a squirt gun when they can do this?
The cleared section improves visibility by a lot, which reveals Dominique exiting her tube in the distance. She glances back, sees us enter the web, and quickly speeds up with another flap of her wings, disappearing to the side somewhere. As expected, the tube of Boreum crumbles as we fly past, allowing the webbing around it to spring back into place.
Nice try, bitch.
Below us, Lilly and Onni navigate an electrified surface of greysteel beneath the webbing. I keep a narrow eye on Onni as we pass over. He looks up but doesn’t make any attempt to stop us.
Next, we catch up to Jacob. The webbing appears to do little to slow him down as he hacks himself a way through the dense stuff one-armed, while navigating a series of narrow ridges between deceptively shallow pools of Boreum vapour.
If anything, the Vibration Energy probably empowers him, assuming he knows reconversion.
When we near the halfway point, Kaitlynn hands me her waterskin. I inhale the contents, and shoot another narrow stream of acid which cuts a gap into the rest of the web, providing us a clean path through.
I spit a few times to rid my mouth of the sour taste as Kaitlynn increases the output of her jets.
“Look!” she calls over the Aether streaming past our ears. “The greysteel doors!”
And indeed, the tunnel widens up beyond the webbing, giving way to a big hexagonal room of smooth stone.
We shoot in at high speed. Four of the walls hold a big greysteel door featuring a unique etching of a grossly disfigured humanoid. They all have a kind of victorious pose which seem off somehow. For example, the one with his arms in the air in a clear ‘finish pose,’ seems to be suspended from chains on his wrists...
“Shit, sharp left, sharp left!” Kaitlynn exclaims, having noticed sooner than I that the tunnel which leads on starts in the wall directly to the left of the one we just exited.
I throw us sideways and kick my tail as hard as I can, drifting around the corner.
I hope our friends all manage to get to a door in time... Jacob shouldn’t have any issues, with his rate of progress, but behind him were Onni and Lily. If they all take a greysteel door, that leaves but one, in which case either Dave, Alec, or both, will have to join the fight for the three darksteel doors.
Damn. Maybe we should’ve stuck around and... I shake my head.
Stuck around and what? Dropped Calyx and Steve into the pit to help our friends? Frig. Let’s just focus on our own problems.
The tunnel curves to the right, surprisingly obstacle-free, until it opens up into a large chamber with a long and wide, smooth upward slope, that looks slickened with some kind of liquid.
Well, that shouldn’t be too big of—
A high-speed projectile smashes into me, barely leaving me time to lift my arm. The Negative Inertial Energy field protects me from the impact and is probably the only reason I don’t break anything.
Kaitlynn barely manages to hang on as we’re both flung back into the tunnel.
I manage to stabilise before we hit the ground, and look up for the source of the attack.
My eyes widen when I spot what’s going on.
Almost near the top of the slope, Dominique is attempting to block the bombardment of a dozen cannons with a dome-shaped wall of Boreum. The sleek greysteel barrels are mounted upside-down on swivelling stone platforms attached to the ceiling and fire with pulses of yellow light.
Twelve Kinetic Energy cannons? Holy shit!
To her credit, Dominique almost manages to reach the top, before the projectiles start pushing her back again.
I swear I hear her inarticulate scream of rage as the oversized Boreum dome is accelerated backwards. It isn’t until she reaches near the mid-way point that she manages to stop the process by flinging out a web of Boreum vapour that anchors the whole thing in place mid-Aether, despite the continued barrage of what I now realise are greysteel cannonballs.
Her Boreum holds up admirably, so it must be pretty darn Cold.
She glances back, spotting us even before we’re done taking in the situation.
Her eye narrows, and as she turns back around, her strategy changes. The dome remains anchored in place, but stretches out the front in to a hollow lance with a sharp point. At first, I believe it’s just meant to be a more streamlined shape to help deflect the projectiles, but then she enters it, and the lance begins to lengthen in the front and disperse in the back, while new tendrils of Boreum vapour spread out before it to keep it anchored.
She’s burrowing through the Aether!
I open my mouth, but Kaitlynn is way ahead of me.
“Flight mode A!” she calls out as she leaps off my back. Twin streams of Astreum leave her nose, surrounding her body in a glowing orange cloak before she jets off.
A single projectile is immediately fired at her. In response, Kaitlynn spits out a compact ball of Astreum, which flies ahead and meets it head-on.
The compressed Astreum bomb—the product of Astreum Manipulation level 3—detonates upon contact, slowing the cannonball down and sending it off course.
After marvelling at my girlfriend’s prowess for only a split second, I set off too.
Splitting up is definitely the right call, as together we’d draw twice as much fire.
My own method of crossing the area is a little different. Instead of engaging with the projectiles, I set out to evade them.
Normally that’d be pretty hard, even with my improved manoeuvrability, but why play fair if you don’t have to?
My eyelid flutters in concentration for a moment as I shrink the boundary around myself down in no fewer than three dimensions.
All the training I did in the past days paid off. I had to endure a lot of splitting headaches, but I eventually managed this feat and raised Distort Space to the third level. I still haven’t seen what comes next in the Skilldream Shopping Window, as I lack the points, but I’m very curious.
All the more reason to hurry up to that door.
Shrunk down to a size of about two feet, I’m much harder to hit. Not only that, but I’ve found that I can somewhat shift my boundary—including contents—around in the empty space surrounding it.
It’s an odd form of movement. It’s clearly not teleportation, more of a swift drift to the side, like sliding over a frictionless surface but without accelerating.
I can also only do it within the volume my boundary occupied before I shrank it. It feels like the empty space I created around myself by shrinking the boundary is still linked to the boundary somehow, which makes a kind of sense. Perhaps I can only do this because I still technically occupy the same space. In any case, it seems like the moment I allow the boundary to expand again, my centre of mass will shift back to its initial relative position.
Until then, however, I’m free to move myself around unpredictably, which makes dodging these cannonballs a lot easier, even as more of them start coming.
We’re steadily catching up to Dominique, whose tunnelling process appears unstoppable, if kinda slow. The only downside here is that as we move further up the slope, more of the cannons start to focus on us, letting up on Dominique as a result, and allowing her to speed up again.
The increase in speed doesn’t seem to satisfy her, however, or maybe she’s getting anxious now that we’re getting so close, because the next thing I know, she bursts out of her tube and attempts to fly the last ten feet up.
Unfortunately, it seems she managed to catch whatever system is controlling the cannons by surprise, and makes it.
Her gamble pays off. The second she reaches the top of the slope, the cannons swivel away from her, spreading all their fire between us.
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